Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering the Wars

In honor of Memorial Day, a medley from the fabulous 2008 revival of South Pacific, as performed at that year's Tonys.

I don't mean this lightly; both my grandfathers served on the Pacific Front during World War II, one in the navy and one on the ground in mainland China. Remembering wars is always a tricky business.There's long been a sentiment that most commemorations of WWII have focused on the European theater; part of the stated impetus of the HBO mini-series The Pacific is to address that perceived problem. But while it might be true, it's worth remembering that South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949, a mere four years after Hiroshima. Part of the central tension of the musical, I think, is negotiating the transition from wartime patriotic glorification of war to the post-war slow, laborius process of deciding how exactly the war was going to be remembered. Which parts were worthy of commemoration, and which parts needed to be forgotten? What knowledge did we as a country learn from those four years? There were a lot of lessons, and it took a long time to process.

Europe, of course, does not celebrate Memorial Day, instead focusing their attentions on Armistice Day in November. Remembering the Great War of earlier in the century, the lessons of Armistice Day are unambiguous: war is horrific violence. When you remember on Armistice Day, you are remembering the lost lives. Memorial Day is a little more ambiguous: it great out of commemorations of the Civil War, and the process of knitting the country back together. So in addition to an outlet for grief, there is an element of nation-building built into the ceremony.

World War II never had its holiday, perhaps because the war never really ended: it melded seamlessly into the various conflicts of the Cold War. Maybe that's why it took so long for the war itself to be commemorated with its own memorial in DC. Instead, isolated moments of glory were lifted out of the war and put on a pedestal, not to remember the dead, but to serve as an example of heroic conquest:

Felix de Wheldon's sculpture for the Marine Corps Memorial outside of DC has stood in for an actual national WWII memorial for forty years; its status as such owes more to the politics of its erection in 1951 than it does to the war itself; war is not about the dead, it is about planting the flag. We finally left the Cold War behind in the 1990s, but it's worth noting that the memory of war as glorious conquest stays with us; I drive by the Marine Corps Museum every week as I travel between Virginia and Philadelphia. It looms out of the woods along I-95 like some monstrous folly. It wasn't until looking for a picture to display here that I saw that the base of the building replaces the soldiers and pedestal of the original with an enormous fortress:

The memories of war in South Pacific also do not dwell in the enormity of loss in human life. The death of the lieutenant at the end of the show (sorry for the spoiler!) hits hard, but it is not the main story of the musical. Instead, it is a forward-looking analysis of the other legacy of war in the Pacific: the tremendous intercultural mixing, as farm boys and girls as corny as Kansas in August encounter cultural differences beyond the scope of their imaginations. That's the other untold story of the Pacific Front, and one that served particularly potent lessons through wars in Korea, Vietnam, and now perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan. The fantasy of the Iwo Jima monument is that the US can just invade and conquer a foreign enemy and plant the American flag on top of now-empty ground, the same way white Americans conquered their own continent. South Pacific tried, in its earnestly-liberal way, to warn us that things will be much more complicated.

So I try to spend my own Memorial Day remembering these things, and thinking about the danger faced by my friends and family members who are in Afghanistan right now, and also thinking about those overseas who have suffered from almost a decade of seemingly random American aggression across the region. And also remembering the kid I met at a wedding last year who was home on leave to be with his girlfriend. They had only been together a little while, but he spent the whole evening telling me how in love he was with her. Two months later he was injured in the CIA base bombing, suffering severe brain damage. He's recuperating surprisingly well, and I hope the same for everyone else.


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